The willow bows low trailing its branches into the glittering water. Sunlight slides off a copper-green tower. Partially closed, ancient wooden slabs of doors refute access to the masses but the courtyards, cloisters, and colonnaded walkways beyond are glimpses of a different world. I’m in Oxford and the University and its constituent colleges are an ever-present reminder of knowledge, power, inequality/equality and wealth.
This is a place of privilege and influence but also ideas. Power oozes from these walls, pools around yellowed-stone halls and flows out on its way into every corner of British life and then on out across the world.
I’m here to contribute to, and discover more about, the county’s drive to create an Inclusive Growth Commission and to find out first-hand how Oxfordshire is building a leading social enterprise place.
My guide is Grant Hayward, Director of Collaborent – a consultancy specialising in social enterprise. Grant is a leading figure in the Oxfordshire social enterprise scene and works tirelessly to get concepts like social enterprise into economic strategies across the area.
Grant describes himself as ‘a Thatcher’s child turned good’. He experienced a sort of conversion at a Common Purpose leadership course in the mid-2000s. Grant was instrumental in setting up Oxfordshire Social Entrepreneurship Partnership (OSEP) and kindred organization to our own Plymouth Social Enterprise Network (PSEN).
There are stacks of initiatives that Grant is seeking to float which promote social enterprise. Currently he is working on delivering a business advice programme – Escalate – which is supported by the Local Enterprise Partnership.
Grant takes me on a social safari – a walking tour of Oxford’s social enterprises. We take tea in Turl Street Kitchen – a social enterprise dedicated to supporting students to tackle social challenges. We visit the glorious town hall, see some of the famous colleges – Christ Church, Pembroke, Exeter and waltz past the Ashmolean Museum. These are names that sit in any pantheon of global intellectual icons.
We meet some of the luminaries of the Oxford Cooperative Scene – Councillor Richard Howlett and Andy Edwards from Oxford Co-op Movement. We discuss how we could build a broad movement using business for social change and the risks of division amongst social business movements.
I’ve been invited to speak at Kellogg College – one of the newer university colleges – at a seminar on Inclusive Growth. It is a great honour to speak at the University of Oxford of all places. Some of the finest - and most devious - minds have spoken here in the past.
I present on the Plymouth Inclusive Growth Group’s journey: the formation of the group, the painful process of agreeing definitions and metrics for inclusivity and our flagship policies and projects. These include a Chartermark for businesses wanting to join in and show they are creating a fairer Plymouth through their work; a leadership programme on Inclusive Growth; exploring social value in commissioning and procurement and looking at long-term capital projects.
One of the highlights of the night is a talk by Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Studies (CLES). Neil showcases how Community Wealth Building – spending more locally and really driving better use of local assets and resources - is helping to create better towns and places. Neil also explains how the economy is a construct of society and politics. In the quote of the night he says: “We can have any economy we want.”
The next morning Grant and I visit the Skoll Foundation’s HQ at the prestigious Said Business School in Oxford University. More mellow, yellow stone. We meet Chris Blues, Skoll’s Programme Manager. I met Chris at a conference in Santander, Spain and its great to catch up especially as he is just back from the Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia.
Chris shows us round Said and Skoll’s building. We discuss power and systems change. Chris talks about how he is inspired by: “people taking the brave choice as individuals to be the units of change.” We discuss how we need to reimagine a better future with social enterprise at the heart and how social enterprise lacks a brand and a political economy.
Next up is a visit to the Local Enterprise Partnership and a chat with Richard Byard, the Director of Business Development. There is lots of technical talk about economic strategy and policy. What intrigues me is that despite many differences (geography, demographics, relative affluence and the like) there are many similarities with the LEP in Devon and Somerset and Oxford. Not that this should be a surprise as all LEPs sit in a UK government framework but the needs for skills development, infrastructure and access to finance are palpably similar to our own. We also try to get our heads around the Shared Prosperity Fund!
Then on to Aspire – a social enterprise tackling homelessness, poverty and disadvantage. We meet Paul Roberts, Aspire’s CEO. With a fascinating background as a British diplomat and Foreign Office experience Paul talks through Aspire’s work and vision.
We are joined later by some colleagues from the Oxford Social Enterprise Partnership and share stories, sector gossip and ideas about building social enterprise networks, ecosystems and infrastructure. Again, many similarities exist with the work in Plymouth. The frustrations of a lack of investment in this supporting/policy/advocacy work are shared. We agree that where social enterprise infrastructure is strong the sector is well resourced, respected and begins to flourish. It is no coincidence that the leading social enterprise places in the UK are found where social enterprises are well networked.
Our final meeting is with the irrepressible Mark Mann, Senior Ventures Manager, of Oxford University Innovation. His organization invests in research ideas emerging from Oxford University with a view to turning them into businesses. Here there are very obvious differences – the ‘brand’ of Oxford University is world leading and opens many doors to investors. Plymouth’s university, although doing great work, does not have the same global or UK standing (yet!). Mark talks about the need for social investment to go into a ‘system’ rather than into individual organizations. It is also encouraging to hear that socially innovative entrepreneurial approaches are favoured by many of the organization’s investees.
Then it’s time to say goodbye and travel home. My train is hugely delayed and I miss a connection which means I get back to Plymouth much later than expected. But this does give me time to reflect. My takeaways are:
Huge thanks to Grant for showing me around Oxford and putting together a fabulous itinerary; all the people who gave up time to talk to me in Oxford and especially to the Rank Foundation for the bursary that enabled my visit.